Cover bands, which are usually comprised of general business musicians, play sets of songs written by other artists at private events, nightclubs, and bars. While they might not have the recognition or prestige of recording artists, cover bands have something fairly elusive in the live music business: steady work and a built-in audience. Some cover bands have a deep repertoire and can play everything from Elvis to Beyoncé, but many specialize in playing songs from a specific musical era, genre, or iconic group. Still others become known for reworking tunes in a particular style, such as the Youtube-famous Postmodern Jukebox, the French group Nouvelle Vague, or the infamous Vitamin String Quartet.
There are many different ways to approach working as a cover band musician. Some musicians might throw together a band of peers to pick up the occasional gig when time allows. For them, this functions as a low-commitment source of income while pursuing other ends—trying to get a record contract with an original ensemble, for example. For a number of musicians, however, playing in a cover band represents a full-time, long-term career. Successful and respected cover bands are represented by agencies who negotiate rates, book appearances (sometimes 18 months in advance) and keep their top-shelf players on retainer.
Cover Band Musician at a Glance
Most cover band members are professional or freelance musicians, who might also work as touring musicians, session musicians, pit orchestra musicians, cruise ship musicians, military musicians, or church musicians. Many are aspiring to become recording artists, although some just want to make a living playing music. Successful cover bands might be represented by an agency, and become local staples, touring powerhouses, or even successful recording groups.
Highly skilled members of cover bands could be qualified to play in an orchestra or television band, while those with leadership skills and experience could become bandleaders or music directors. Those who are skilled at reinventing compositions for different instrumentations and styles could also become professional arrangers.
Some cover bands are formed by bandleaders with a particular vision for the band's aesthetic, while others come together naturally from existing groups of friends and collaborators. Established and business-oriented cover bands—such as those in a saturated market like Las Vegas—frequently audition musicians to fill their ranks.
Top-notch cover bands might work at all kinds of special functions—from wedding receptions, birthday parties, and bar mitzvahs to fundraisers, grand openings, and corporate events. Many cover bands become recognizable fixtures at bars, clubs, and lounges, building a local fan base.
- Deep instrumental skills
- Live performance
- Large musical repertoire
- Fluency in and knowledge of many musical styles
- Public speaking
- The vision to reinvent an existing composition
Cover bands mostly exist to supply feel-good music at celebratory gatherings and bars, or to translate existing songs into a more flexible or easy-on-the-ears format. When it comes to live gigs, cover band musicians should be professional, adaptable, and ready to bring an upbeat vibe. Charisma and public speaking skills can go a long way when it comes to warming up cold audiences at special function gigs, who almost definitely aren't there to listen to live music.
Finding consistent work is the challenge for cover bands, which are paid by the show. Those who don't land ongoing placements at bars or casinos or hire managers and agents to find gigs for them will likely run out of work sooner or later, as there are only so many one-time functions and celebrations to work. Those who only play the occasional one-off gig will need to find day jobs. Working part-time for a music venue or events management company can be an excellent way to secure gigs.